Of a score of good things found outside heaven
The land of Sussex was granted seven
The choicest of those I often feel
Is the oily, glutinous Pulborough eel Though the Selsea cockle would be the best
The Chichester lobster’s the lordliest dish The herring of Rye is the tastiest dish
The mullet of Arundel would have my vote If I could but forget the Amberley trout The wheatear of Bourne whenever it’s about.
The famous Sussex foods of yester-year
These seven Sussex culinary delights were laid down many years ago in an old folk poem (and possibly confirmed in Fuller’s Worthies in the 19th century). Not perhaps surprisingly, for what has always been a prime maritime county, six of the seven were fish or shellfish:
The Selsey cockle
Probably extinct now and not many people eat them nowadays (one could say the same of whelks, the nearest chewy equivalent). As a result, two of our most eminent modern writers on food in Sussex (MK Samuelson and Rosemary Moon) have suggested that this place should now be given to mussels to be gleaned along the West Sussex coast.
The Chichester lobster
Although it’s been suggested that this too is more likely to be harvested off Selsey, historically the term Chichester lobster is more likely to apply to any of the multi-clawed fellows harvested in any of the branches of Chichester harbour.
The Arundel mullet
Here is a fish of some renown. It is of course a grey mullet, a substantial fish. Going back to Medieval times, St Thomas a Becket, who had some connections with Sussex used to pass between Tarring, where he dabbled in the cultivation of figs, and Cantebury where he eventually got martyred. On one journey, whilst tarrying at Malling, he found some Sussex fishermen failing to find a catch below the bridge at Lewes. The Saint waved his hand and they produced four large mullets.
The Amberley trout
These were supposed to abound in the clearer reaches of the Arun. Rosemary Moon says that if she caught one she would have it smoked at Springs of Edburton, and in her book, A Feast of West Sussex she gives us a recipe of Trout Paté made with a mixture of freshly cooked and smoked trout.
The Pulborough eel
This was extensively fished in the muddier reaches of the Arun and other Sussex rivers. I have a note in an old Sussex recipe book that I had Pulborough Eel Pudding cooked to a 19th century recipe in The Swan at Fittleworth in 1981, and at the same time, the menu was offering Arundel Mullet cooked to another traditional recipe.
The Rye herring
It was not so much the herring that was from Rye but the fisherman. The Rye boats did much of their fishing in the North Sea, sometimes selling their catch in Yarmouth but at other times getting up a good fight with the locals. They were not as violent in this as their brothers from Hastings who earned themselves the name of chop-backs, due to their tendency to do their filleting not on their catch but on any fishermen from France or Holland who strayed into “their” waters.
The Eastbourne wheatear
The odd one out of the seven probably owed its name more to where it was eaten: a small migratory bird sometimes known as the Sussex Ortolan, it paused on the South Downs on its migration to warmer climes in North Africa. Here it was trapped by the South Downs shepherds and sold to hotels and poulterers in Brighton, Eastbourne and even London. Small wonder then that the Wheatear is, at least in these parts, extinct for the shepherd could almost double his annual income with the sales, and hundreds of dozens of the birds would go to the table each year. There is much about this practice in Shepherds of Sussex by Barclay Wills or The Spirit of the Downs by Arthur Beckett. For those travellers on the Downs who felt kindly for the trapped birds, the custom was to leave a coin in the trap instead. My recipe book contains a story about a Wheatear pie that saved a Sussex Cavalier from the Roundheads who were going to make a “pye” of him!
Contributed by Peter Benner
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